How Dubai Works

Dubai History and Attractions
Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, has driven the emirate's wealth.
Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, has driven the emirate's wealth.
Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1980s, Dubai's royals realized their emirate's main source of revenue -- oil -- wou­ld not last far into the next century. Oil discovered in 1966 enlivened the small desert city previously known for its pearl exports and fishing industry.

Dubai's Sheik Rashi­d bin Saeed al Maktoum, who ruled from 1958 to 1990, is largely credited with dreaming up Dubai. But it's his son, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler since 2006, who has made the city materialize.

Sheik Mohammed's endless ambition epitomizes Duba­i. He encourages the creativity and outlandishness that drive tourists to a destination city in a harsh climate, far from other cultural capitals. Many trace Dubai's entrée into global prominence to 1­985, when Sheik Mohammed started Emirates Airlines with his own funds and only two planes. The enterprise, profitable within a year, now serves more than 80 destinations.

Dubai is perhaps most famous for its seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, a sail-shaped, suites-only luxury destination liberally decorated with 22-karat gold. For some, the hotel is Dubai's sole attraction -- an indoor vacation in itself. But outside, Dubai grows more astonishing.

Men in traditional dress watch children play at Ski Dubai, part of the Mall of the Emirates.
Nasser Younes/AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, workers will complete construction on the Burj Dubai, the new tallest building in the world. A palm-shaped island of apartments and villas extends out into the Persian Gulf and can be seen from space. Two larger palm islands and an archipelago shaped like a map of the world are also under construction. Soon Dubai will boast the world's largest mall, longest indoor ski run and biggest theme park. There are even plans for a district with buildings made to look like chess pieces.

Announcements of new projects in Dubai are usually prefaced by such superlatives as "world's tallest" or "most luxurious on Earth." But underlying all the remarkable,­ ostentatious design is also an intensity of service sure to surprise all but the most pampered visitors. Bedouin culture is known for its hospitality, and Dubai lives up to the reputation.

In the next section we'll learn about Dubai's plans for regional financial domination and the Emiratie identity crisis.